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aSSEMBLY LINE POLITICS
It's been a difficult birth and the infant institution remains weak. But at least the Assembly is alive at last, and fitfully kicking. With a bit of luck we can look forward to real politics.
Eamonn McCann, 24 Jun 1998
It's been a difficult birth and the infant institution remains weak. But at least the Assembly is alive at last, and fitfully kicking. With a bit of luck we can look forward to real politics. That's the hope.
Weary old arguments over parades, prisoners, police and partition will fade away. The new arena will ring out with speeches about hospitals, schools, jobs, the environment. No more the dull thud of Orange upon Green. Henceforth, or soon enough, Left will chime against Right.
So who'll be tolling for the Left, then, and who for the Right?
During the election campaign, the Belfast Telegraph's business editor, Rosie Cowan, asked each of the main parties to spell out their ideas for (a) encouraging investment and (b) combatting long-term unemployment - the sort of issues on which political forces anywhere might naturally assemble in Left-Right formation.
The result (Telegraph, June 20th) made interesting reading. It suggested that whether the Assembly turns out to serve Nationalists' interests better than Unionists', or vice-versa, it's going to suit business-interests, big time: if the Orange-Green axis fades away, it won't be replaced by a polarisation between Left and Right but, rather, by a Right-wing, or centre-Right, consensus.
The most common suggestion for encouraging investment was to give businessmen bigger subsidies. The SDLP wanted "corporation tax . . . lowered to the same level as in the Republic". The DUP couldn't bring itself to plead for parity with the Republic but implied as much, calling for "a level playing field". Sinn Féin advocated a "common corporate and income tax regime . . . Disparity between . . . corporation tax rates in both states must be taken away". The Alliance Party called for tax changes "to grow business". The Ulster Unionists, hardly buzzing with coherent ideas on any issue these days, suggested "more emphasis . . . on encouraging the growth of indigenous companies".
That is, in relation to strategy for economic development there is no clear gap between the positions of the major Assembly parties.
On long-term unemployment, all five parties called for better education and training. Alliance wanted more emphasis on "enterprise", Sinn Féin spoke of the need to redress the legacy of decades of discrimination, the Ulster Unionists underlined the importance of indigenous industry, the SDLP wanted a "long-term development strategy", the DUP warned against "ageism" (perhaps a reflection of the senior Paisley's septuagenarian status?).
All of the ideas were conventional and, broadly speaking, conservative. No party advanced an idea which distinguished it from the others in Left-Right terms.
All this suggests strongly that members of the Assembly are not going to break ranks from their present array and reconstitute themselves in Left-Right formation when it comes to economic issues. How, then, and as a reflection of what changed aspect of politics, is the realignment supposedly augured by the Assembly to be made manifest? The conclusion is that it won't be.
This shouldn't be surprising. Across Europe, notably in Britain and Southern Ireland, the centre-Right stretch of the political spectrum has become uncomfortably crowded in recent years. The collapse of Stalinism, taken together with the inability of the free-market economies to deliver further redistribution of resources, has seen both "communists" and social democrats ditching long-held beliefs and scampering for the safety of "the middle ground".
The ticket-of-entry to the middle ground is acceptance of the inviolability of the market: agreement that the war between capital and labour is over and done with, and that labour has lost.
This development in the North has gone largely unnoticed - precisely because of the construction of politics around the idea of community rather than class. A tilt towards Green or Orange will instantly be noted and widely discussed in the mainstream media. But a shift or convergence along the Left-Right continuum won't register. The result is that just at the time we are being told to rejoice at the old political paradigm finally fading away, we find that the alternative axis has proven more rapidly biodegradable, has already withered, and is gone.
This is not at all to suggest that Left-Right politics are impractical now in the North. It's to say that those seriously intent on a realignment away from communal rivalry and towards the pursuit of common interests should understand that "making the Assembly work" is not the main point. To "make the Assembly work" is to make the politics of communal rivalry "work". The challenge to communal politics will have to be mounted mainly from outside, and usually without reference to proceedings (if any) in the Assembly.
Likely issues to campaign on are not hard to come by: the exclusion of young people from the minimum wage legislation; the intimidation of the unemployed into demeaning jobs; the hounding of single parents and of people dependent on social welfare generally; the contemptuous underfunding and understaffing of schools in deprived areas; the fact that the age of consent for both gays and straights is a year older (17) than in Britain; the denial of abortion rights to women; arbitary sackings, bullying bosses and no union organisation at work; the closure of hospital services on which people who can't "go private" depend on literally for their lives. Etc, etc, etc.
None of these issues need await the Assembly. On the contrary, insofar as discontent arising from them is fed into the Assembly, it's likely to be channelled along the age-old lines. (Some of them - social security, abortion - are outside the remit of the Assembly anyway.)
The point is, we cannot solve the problem of sectarianism in the North by setting out to solve the problem of sectarianism only, abstracting the phenomenon from wider society. It is only when they are immersed in surrounding social and economic circumstances that communal identities can interact positively, intermingle and develop a potential to mutate, and even merge.
Why, then, is the Progressive Unionist Party relatively popular among Catholics?
The PUP speaks for the Ulster Volunteer Force, the guys who gave us the Shankill Butchers. David Ervine is a convicted bomber, and Billy Hutchinson is a convicted killer. What an odd couple to be esteemed in Catholic areas. It cannot entirely be put down to their willingness to talk to Republicans and relaxed attitude to decommissioning and so forth. Or even to the moist-eyed charisma of Mr. Ervine.
It has to do with a sense that the PUP has an agenda which goes beyond the communal division. During the Assembly election the PUP was the only party to call explicitly for the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to the North. The UDP spoke generally about women's rights, Sinn Féin dodged the issue, the Women's Coalition ran for cover. Only the PUP, in the person of David Ervine on Radio Ulster's Talkback, publicly told the "pro-lifers" to Spuc off.
The significance lies not in the fact that a few Catholics-for-a-free choice may have warmed towards the PUP on account of this stand on their issue. What's relevant is that people feel more at ease making links across the divide when there's more to it than crossing the divide, when it's not a journey undertaken for its own sake.
The PUP's stated class line on economic matters, and generally progressive approach to issues of social morality, puts them into partial alignment with the thinking of some on "the other side". The larger the other issues loom the nearer, politically, the other side seems.
It doesn't do to puff up the PUP. They are still wrapped in the Union Jack and they bring horrible baggage with them from the very recent past. They talk about the common interests of the working-class while simultaneously presenting themselves as part of the "Unionist family". Politically they are doing the double, and will be caught out unless they come clean.
But in the meantime, their relative popularity in Catholic areas hints at one of the most intriguing truths of the fraught situation that we currently find ourselves in.
To say that we must sort out the communal division before we can move on to "real politics", is to give up on reaching real politics. n